Food assistance program adds Portland, South Portland markets

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SOUTH PORTLAND — The Farm Stand on Ocean Street and the Portland Food Co-op are the latest retail locations to join a program that brings locally sourced food to low-income shoppers who use federal food assistance. 

The expansion of Maine Harvest Bucks is part of a larger collaboration to make locally sourced food more accessible to those utilizing the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.

For every $10 spent on local SNAP-eligible food items, a customer will receive a $5 Maine Harvest Bucks bonus to purchase produce. Sign-up will be held 4-7 p.m. at the Portland Food Co-op, 290 Congress St., Portland, on Tuesday, Aug. 2.

“The main goal is to encourage the consumption and access of local fresh and healthy food,” Joe Fournier, co-owner and manager of The Farm Stand, said. “(We’re) excited to be a part of this program that includes everyone in the achievement of that goal.”

The Farm Stand and Portland Co-op are two of six markets across the state participating in the incentive program, according to a July 26 press release. The Farm Stand is a retail collaboration between Jordan’s Farm in Cape Elizabeth and the Wales-based Farmers’ Gate Market butchery.

Other markets using Maine Harvest Bucks include the Belfast Co-op – where the program was piloted in March – the Good Tern Co-op in Rockland, the Blue Hill Co-op, and the Rising Tide Community Market in Damariscotta.

In addition to those six, about 35 other markets and retail locations are offering some variation of the program through Maine Harvest Bucks. 

Maine is ranked first in New England for food insecurity, and 24 percent of the state’s children are food insecure, according to the Pittsfield-based Maine Federation of Farmers Markets. About 16 percent of Maine residents receive SNAP benefits, which average about $28 per person, per week. 

The majority of SNAP benefits across the country – 80 percent – are redeemed at big-box stores, according to MFFM. 

While Maine is the second-highest state in the nation, behind Hawaii, for the percentage of SNAP benefits redeemed directly from farmers, that figure is still just 0.1 percent.

Leigh Hallett, MFFM executive director, said the Maine Harvest Bucks program, is a great way to encourage individuals to not only opt for locally sourced options, but to also allow customers to capitalize on their SNAP benefits.

“If you can go and get a couple of jars of yogurt and you know you’re going to get bonus produce, that is a great way to leverage your dollars,” she said.

Customers using SNAP and other forms of government aid, such as Electronic Benefit Transfer cards and the Women, Infants and Children program, can participate in community supported agriculture and make purchases at some Maine farmers markets. However, the majority of farmers markets in the state don’t offer that option.   

Of the approximately 115 registered summer farmers markets in Maine, about 40 of accepted SNAP payments in 2015, according to Hallett. That number grew to 64 this year.

Customers using SNAP can buy a variety of items, including fruits, vegetables, baked goods, eggs, cheeses, jellies, seeds, honey, maple syrup, meat, fish and poultry. 

The expansion of the Maine Harvest Bucks program to Portland and South Portland is one more step in the “growing part of the food movement to ensure that fresh, healthy food is accessible to everyone,” Mary Alice Scott, community engagement manager for the Portland Food Co-op, said. 

The Maine Harvest Bucks program is made possible through a three-year Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant given to the Maine Farmland Trust last year.

Funded by the USDA, the grant is designed to “broaden nutrition incentives beyond direct-to-consumer outlets, like farmers markets, and into retail stores and other farm aggregators,” according to a press release. 

Shannon Grimes, program manager at the Maine Farmland Trust, said “Retail locations like co-ops are often more familiar to customers who are used to shopping at grocery stores, and by offering local-based incentives, we can increase sales and market opportunities for Maine farms.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA

Federal food assistance program beneficiaries who utilize the new Maine Harvest Bucks program will receive incentives to purchase locally sourced produce at two new locations: The Farm Stand, pictured, on Ocean Street in South Portland, and the Portland Food Co-op.

The Farm Stand, at 161 Ocean St., South Portland, will offer customers using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits the option of using Maine Harvest Bucks, which will add a bonus $5 for fruits and vegetables to every $10 purchase.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.